By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
The first line of the first single off the new album by Mark Olson and Gary Louris begins mid-sentence, as if picking up partway through a story we should already know.
"And then came disappointment," Olson and Louris sing in unison on "Turn Your Pretty Name Around," immediately pulling the listener back into the world they created for themselves 20 years before, when they started writing songs together in their pioneering alt-country band, The Jayhawks. Like two old friends picking up a long-abandoned conversation, Olson and Louris singing together again feels remarkably natural and congruent.
But both halves of the duo agree that theirs wasn't always an easy friendship. In the late '90s, the two went five years without speaking to each other. And now that the duo has since made amends with the past and rejoined forces to create a beautiful and striking January-released album, Ready for the Flood, they're ready to finally divulge what drove them apart in the first place.
The problems first started shortly after the release of 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass, Louris says. Then Olson moved to California to marry singer-songwriter Victoria Williams.
"He really fell in love," Louris says of Olson. "He moved away, and he lived in Joshua Tree, and that, I think, was a bit of the beginning of the end. Because then we weren't in the same town, we couldn't just go over to the practice space with the band anymore...
"Initially I told him we wouldn't carry on with the band, at least under that name," Louris continues. "After further discussion with the label and further discussion with the rest of the band members, and the reality of the music business, we decided to carry on without him. And I think that caused a rift. Nobody wants to feel like they're replaceable. I think Mark took it very personally, and we really didn't speak for a number of years."
Now, however, neither Olson nor Louris blames the other for their split.
"It's to my discredit that I didn't stay in better contact," says Olson. "I take responsibility for not picking up the phone more often."
But neither Louris nor Olson picked up the phone often at all. Rather, it was a call from a Hollywood music supervisor that eventually led to Louris and Olson speaking again. The supervisor wanted to see if the two would consider penning an Olson/Louris song for a movie soundtrack.
"That was the impetus to get us together, and we talked out all our little issues and big issues and reconnected as friends and put the past behind us," Louris says.
The song they wrote when reunited, "Say You'll Be Mine," never ended up in the movie. But Olson did use the track on his 2002 album, December's Child, and it got the ball rolling on more Olson/Louris collaborations. First came an acoustic tour along the East and West coasts. Then, in 2006, the two met for a concentrated, five-day songwriting session, piecing together most of the songs on Ready for the Flood from start to finish. Louris calls it "one of the most intensive songwriting periods I've ever had with anyone."
Their attentiveness to songwriting craft is obvious on the new album. Unlike the old Jayhawks songs, which often featured Louris on electric guitar and a full backing band, the songs on Flood are stripped-down, tightly woven and tinged with elements of bluegrass and folk. In other words, the sparse musical arrangements are the perfect backdrop for homing in on the delicate dance of Olson and Louris' vocal harmonies.
"Our voices join, and it becomes this third person," says Louris. "We don't have vocal rehearsals. We don't chart out harmonies. I just sing and he sings, and I go where he isn't."
Kinda like the story of the band's past. But not its present, now that the air is cleared among these two impeccable songwriters: Earlier this month, The Jayhawks announced two upcoming full reunion performances—one in Barcelona in May, and another in Minneapolis in July.